Similarities and Differences
Live drama is an ancient art form with thousands of years of recorded history and ongoing cultural vitality. Cinema is a much newer art form, with a history dating back only to approximately 1895 but having a mass appeal that has pushed live theater into a secondary position in all but a handful of urban locations.
As art forms, theater and cinema have important likenesses and intriguing differences. First, both are primarily story-based art forms. Second, both live drama and cinema depend primarily on performers and performance to communicate the story to the audience. A stage play or a screenplay can be read like a novel, but only speaking, gesturing human actors can give the story its full, intended realization. Third, both drama and cinema share certain common supporting features. These include sets, props, costumes, and all the other elements that make up mise en scène; music and other sound effects; and a play script in which the primary thrust of the story is articulated through human speech or “dialogue.” Even in the silent era, films relied heavily on human speech that was understood through contextual intuition; a combination of gesture, facial expression, and lip reading; and inserts of printed, projected text.
Despite—or, perhaps, because of—these many likenesses, much has been written about the differences between the two media. For instance, in cinema circles, the terms “talky” and “stagey” are negative adjectives that imply the film has not liberated itself from its stage-bound origins. In the world of motion pictures, “cinematic” is the primary form of praise, implying that the film makes use of the advantages (camera angles, editing, special effects) offered by the medium.
In part, these kinds of distinctions derive from the historical rivalry of the two forms. However, they also point to certain crucial conditions of production. Indeed, they can all be said to originate in one specific condition: dramatic scripts or “plays” are produced on a stage, by actors performing directly and personally in the company of the audience. In cinema, however, the actors perform for the director and the camera. Their performance is recorded on an intermediary medium, traditionally celluloid film and increasingly digital formats, to be cut and manipulated for an audience who will be present for a performance of two-dimensional simulacra of the live actors. From this single difference—which can be located specifically in the intermediary function of camera and film—come nearly all of the much discussed differences between the two media.
For instance, the visual field of cinema is potentially much greater than that of stage production. This is a direct function of the wonderful mobility of modern camera equipment and advances in cinematic special effects. The stage is capable of splendid effects of spectacle, but no stage could convincingly deal with the events of films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
Performers work in very different circumstances. The stage actor prepares his or her role to be performed sequentially, in real time, from beginning to end in a single developing sequence. The screen actor works piecemeal, creating the role in fragments that the director and editor stitch together in post-production to create the illusion of a sequential, emotionally evolving performance.
On the live stage, the performer is always conscious of playing directly and personally to the audience. Mistakes cannot be edited out in post-production, and charisma must be generated from within and projected throughout the house without the aid of lingering, larger-than-life closeups or other amplifications of effect that the camera is uniquely qualified to create.
Still, despite the differences between the two media, there are core abilities and practices that keep stage and screen united. Most screenwriters start out writing plays because, above all, they must master the art of...
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